Editorials by Sangharakshita

 
 

Vaisakha Dana

This editorial first appeared in the Maha Bodhi, April 1954

Vaisakha Purnima, the Thrice-Sacred Anniversary of the Birth, Enlightenment and Death of Gautama the Buddha, is fast approaching. In every Buddhist land preparations are already being made to celebrate the Great Day in a befitting manner. Committees are being formed, programmes drawn up, and funds collected, in order that the most important festival of the Buddhist calendar shall be celebrated with all the pageantry and devotional fervour traditionally associated with it. Though the spirit is one, the manner of the celebration will naturally vary from country to country. Here it will be celebrated with processions of gorgeously caparisoned elephants; there, with processions of figures fantastically masked and enormous paper dragons. In one place the chant of adoration to the Blessed One will arise beneath dull grey skies; in another, beneath a heaven of cloudless blue.

But in all Buddhist lands, beneath skies of whatever hue the Thrice-Sacred Day may be celebrated, there will be at least one feature of the celebration which will not vary from country to country, but which will be found, in more or less the same form, in all of them: the giving of Dana. To the Theravada Buddhists of Ceylon, Burma, Siam and Cambodia, the making of gifts at a suitable time and place, to the proper person, and in the right spirit, is a practice which must precede entrance into the three stages of Sila, Samadhi and Panna into which the Noble Eightfold Path leading to Nibbana is divided. To the Mahayana Buddhists of China, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, universal charity without thought of the deservingness of the recipient and without expectation of reward is the first of the Six Paramitas of Dana, Sila, Kshanti, Virya, Dhyana and Prajna, which are to be practised by the Bodhisattva. 'I have devoted and abandoned my frame to all creatures: much more my outward possessions. Any being who shall require it for any purpose, it being recognized for a good, I will give hand, foot, eye, flesh, blood, marrow, limbs great and small - my head itself to such as ask for them; not to mention outward things, wealth, corn, gold, silver, gems, ornaments, horses, elephants, chariots, cars, villages, towns, markets, peoples, kingdoms, capital cities, menservants, maidservants, messengers, sons, daughters and retinue. Whoever shall want it to him will I give so it be for his good. Without regret, and without grudging, without waiting for merit to mature, I will abandon them, without respect of persons, to show them kindness, out of compassion and pity, to be theirs to possess, so that these beings, well entreated by me as by one who has attained wisdom, may learn to know the Law.' Thus, in the Siksha-Samuccaya of Santideva, is the Bodhisattva exhorted to think.

 

Though one may justly doubt whether the modern practice of Dana, the Perfection of Giving, is comparable to the ancient one, it is beyond question that during the days preceding Vaisakha Purnima the hardest hearts will soften, the tightest purse-strings unloosen, and a great wave of generosity roll from one side to the other of every truly Buddhist land. Beggars in the streets, the sick on their beds of pain in hospitals, animals, children and old people, the poor, and, last but by no means least, the members of the Sangha, the Noble Order of Disciples, will all be 'fields of merit' wherein the skilful giver will plant seeds which may bear for him, one day, the highest fruit of all, the Fruit of Immortality.

Will our readers forgive us if we show for a moment the darker side of this bright picture, and point out imperfections in our manner of giving, and suggest one or two new fields for the casting of the seed of our liberality? It must be plainly stated that in all Buddhist countries in the name of Dana money is being simply wasted. In Ceylon Bhikkhus are frequently brought by car from viharas far from the abode of the dayaka and served with rich food in such abundance that they become sick and unable to perform their duties. In Tibet enormous sums of money are spent each year - it used to be a third of the entire Government revenue - for burning butter-lamps before thousands of images. Chinese Buddhists sometimes ruin themselves by indulging in costly funeral rites. In Burma millions of rupees are spent annually for building new shrines and gilding old ones not because there is any real need to do so but simply for the glorification of the giver. Let our meaning not be mistaken. There is nothing wrong in any of the traditional forms of giving to which we have referred; they are in themselves in the highest degree praiseworthy; but in modern times they have become liable to corruption and abuse, and much of the money which is spent on them could be utilized in far better ways.

We are not introducing a note of humanitarianism into the symphony of Buddhism. Dana is given, ultimately, for the advancement of the Dharma, for the spiritual good of humanity, and for the material only insofar as it subserves the spiritual. None of the traditional forms of giving should be discontinued, but money which is now being wasted in the name of Dana should be devoted, instead, to the propagation of the Teachings of the Buddha. The dissemination of the message of the Master far and wide, as an indispensible preliminary to the actual practice of the Doctrine, is the great need of the hour. There are three fields for this dissemination, and for all of them, particularly for the last, regular Dana is urgently required.

Firstly, there is the dayaka's own land. Let him, if he has not already done so, join and support some Buddhist association, or subscribe to a Buddhist magazine. Let him, if his means permit, print at least one book or pamphlet on the Sublime Dharma. Most of all, let him remember that Dana is not of money only, but of time and energy, of health and strength, and even of life itself. Blessed is he who can wear out his body in the service of the Dharma!

Secondly, there is India, the Holy Land of Buddhism, wherein the three great events which we celebrate on the Vaisakha Purnima took place. The Buddhist movement in India is still struggling for its existence. The workers are few, the funds scanty, the difficulties which have to be faced many and great. Pilgrims to the Four Great Shrines come and go, but few of them think of the desperate plight of Buddhism in the land of its birth, and fewer still leave anything behind to help carry forward the movement of revival which Anagarika Dharmapala launched more than sixty years ago and which his successors are still striving to carry on. Bhikkhus who visit India say, when they are asked to stay and preach the Dharma, 'Why should we? We are very comfortable in our own country.' This is not the spirit which spread Buddhism all over Asia. Let those lazy ones who cling to the comforts of their well furnished viharas remember that if the bhikshus of India had adopted such an attitude there would be today in their country no Buddhism, no viharas, and no daily Dana to fill the stomachs of indolent bhikkhus.

Thirdly, there are the whole continents of Europe, Africa, America and Australasia, where indigenous Buddhist movements are in urgent need of a few drops of that flood of Dana which will be inundating so many lands during the forthcoming month. Pause a moment, my good dayaka, before you give your subscription towards the twentieth re-gilding of some image or temple pinnacle, and reflect with shame that, while the Christians of Europe and America maintain thousands of missionaries in your country, you do not support even one dharmaduta in theirs. Stop a moment, venerable Sir, before you lift to your lips the succulent morsels which are being offered to you during the month of Vaisakha and ask yourself what you have done, and what you are now doing, for the propagation of the Dharma either at home or abroad.

Vaisakha Purnima should be a day of heart-searching for all sincere Buddhists, and the month preceding it should, in the same way, be a time not for that ostentatious waste of money which nowadays so often passes as Dana but for truly wise and skilful giving.